When Richard Dreyfuss, in “Jaws,” wanted to trace the eating habits of a tiger shark, he cut open its stomach and let the contents — a few fish and a Louisiana license plate among them — spill out onto a dock.
America’s growing population of food historians have similar instincts, if gentler research habits. The exploding interest in who ate what, and when, has them ransacking old cookbooks, menus, novels, letters and grocery lists, looking to see what strange news about our earlier culinary habits flutters to the floor.
I am prepared to be cynical about this new food historicism. I await the titles that pare this subject into micro-thin slices, books I suspect will be on the order of “Sesame Seeds: The Nutty, Delicate, Crunchy Little Plant Ovules That Revolutionized American Foodways and Changed the World,” or “1897: The Year the Oysters Tasted a Bit Dubious.”